The countdown to the New Year is a ritual that is faithfully awaited by millions of people around the world. The season of celebrating New Year begins well before the clock strikes midnight on December 31. According to the Gregorian calendar which we follow universally, New Year falls on January 1 each year and ushers in 365 days till the next New Year comes up. This is what the international community follows as an undisputed practice. However, many countries follow different calendars, such as the Lunar Calendar and as part of their beliefs and traditions celebrate New Year on different days.
Even though New Year is not a religious festivity or occasion, there is a great deal of variety as there are several customs and traditions associated with the New Year. Ushering in the New Year with fun, positivity and zest underlines all these celebrations and the essence of it includes feasting, merrymaking and praying for prosperity, happiness and good luck in the year ahead.
Let’s take a look at the different religious contexts of the New Year.
Celebrated in accordance with the Gregorian calendar, New Year for Christians begins on January 1 and usually commences with church services and traditional New Year songs followed by family get-togethers, fun and festivity.
The Hindu calendar follows a luni-solar pattern and has seen several changes since the ancient days. An almanac that calculates dates marks the beginning of the New Year on varying dates every year. By and large, New Year celebrations mark the victory of good over evil and Lakshmi and Ganesh are the popular deities worshipped. Diwali, a popular Indian festival, is associated by many as the beginning of the New Year especially for trading communities. It is celebrated with wearing new clothes, lighting of oil lamps around the house, exchange of gifts and sweets between families and friends and the bursting of firecrackers. Around India, which is home to the largest Hindu population, many different states celebrated the New Year according to their customs and traditions – notable examples are Baisakhi in Punjab, Bihu in Assam, Nobo Barsha in West Bengal, Puthaandu in Tamil Nadu, Vishu in Kerala, Ugadi in Andhra Pradesh, Maha Vishuva Sankranti in Orissa, Gudi Padwa in Maharashtra and Navreh in Kashmir. The diversity of Indian culture lends itself well to the colorful celebrations of New Year around India. Underlying all these diverse celebrations is the theme of the ‘triumph of good over evil’.
Muslims world over follow the Lunar Calendar which is evident in the different dates associated with the New Year each year. Generally, the first day of Muharram is considered the first day of the New Year as it is the first month in the Islamic Calendar. However, the celebrations are rather somber in remembrance of Prophet Muhammad and his flight from Medina to Mecca; time is spent in introspection on life and mortality. On the tenth day of the Muharram month, processions are carried out with replicas of the martyr’s tomb and charities are given to the poor and needy.
The Sikh New Year is celebrated according to the Nanakshahi Calendar, the date of which falls on March 14 according to the Gregorian calendar. Sikhs conduct worship services with devotional songs, sacred vegetarian food service to guests, dancing, martial arts demonstrations and fireworks.
These celebrations are dominated by religious customs and can extend to multiple days. Visiting monasteries, bathing Buddha statues, lighting of candles and chanting of hymns are commonly seen. Buddhists follow the Luni-solar calendar and the New Year date varies from one country to another – for instance, the Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese celebrate New Year in January-February, Tibetans in March while Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand celebrate New Year in April. The common theme of these celebrations is happiness and merriment.
Jews give the New Year utmost importance and reverence and the origins of their celebrations can be traced back to Biblical times. The Jewish New Year falls in the month of Tishri, which corresponds to September-October in the modern calendar. It is a ten-day celebration full of socio-religious customs and is known as the Shabbat Shuva, commencing with the Rosh Hashanah and ending with the Yom Kippur on the final day.
Whatever celebrations are in store for New Year for the world’s people, some symbols of celebration stand out each year like the dropping of the ball at Times Square, the lighting up of the Opera House in Sydney, the dazzling fireworks displays in China and the blowing of the ram’s horn in Israel.